Things I miss about the U.S.

Proximity to my family and friends. Although I’m not by any means in a super-remote or underdeveloped area – I have plenty of internet and phone access in São Carlos – it’s just not the same. In the states, I can call to chat anytime without racking up an intercontinental phone bill, or plan a weekend visit just to hang out with someone. That’s probably the main thing: being able to spend time with the people I love. Keeping in touch, even if done very well, doesn’t compare to spending time together.

The chemistry crew at Hamilton. Lou making vulgar comments… Grant coming into my lab just to bother me… wars with Superlab over NMR tubes… complaining about pchem… hanging out in the lounge… playing with dry ice and liquid nitrogen… seniors making fun of the orgo kids… real chemists making fun of the computational “chemists”… even Nica and her iPod, and the Bulgarian/Russian duo famous for screwing up every single piece of lab equipment they touched. For better or for worse, the Hamilton chemistry department was full of quirky characters (both faculty and students), capable of making labwork fun even when the freeze dryer inexplicably broke or I was stuck on the HPLC for 60 hours a week. The atmosphere here in the USP labs just isn’t the same.

My English-speaking personality. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I’m far more outgoing, articulate, and funny in my native language. Or, at least, I used to be. I’m rather annoyed because the more time I spend immersed in Portuguese, the more difficulty I seem to have conversing in English when the opportunity arises. I’m just not phrasing things well. I think it comes from consistently thinking in Portuguese, which simply constructs sentences and ideas differently than English. It’s messing me up.

I also miss the goofy, immature, capoeira-club-dinner humor that made us snarf and laugh until we cried. No one I’ve met here shares the kind of dynamic my college friends did. I don’t know if it’s because I’m hanging out with a slightly older crowd here, or if it’s a cultural difference, or if I just haven’t met the right people…

Only having access to a portion of my possessions. Living out of a suitcase is annoying at times. I frequently get the yen to read a certain book, or wear a certain piece of clothing, or look through my old photo albums or journals, and I can’t because I left it all in the states.

Speaking of books, I miss books in English. Although I can read Portuguese just about fluently, reading in one’s native language is just so much easier. I like to read to relax, and it’s impossible to relax completely while reading in Portuguese, because it requires a slight mental effort. One can get ahold of English books here, but they’re expensive: for example, a paperback English copy of The DaVinci Code (listed as $7.99 on the back of the book cover) is R$50 here (which corresponds to about US$22! Insane!)

The phenomenon of suburbs and the atmosphere of small-town life. Communities such as my hometown of Bethel don’t exist here. Brazilians either live in small rural towns – which tend to subsist from farming and small local commerce, and are poor and underdeveloped (as in half the population being without electricity in their homes, or having to scrape by on less than US$100 a month… less than half the minimum wage in Brazil) – or in big cities. In the cities, the wealthier people tend to live in the more central areas, and the peripheries are favelas: poor and violent slums composed of the people who migrated from the aforementioned rural areas to the city in search of better living conditions, and found none.

I miss parks, grass, nature in general. Brazilians apparently don’t believe in large, open, grassy spaces. All their parks consist of concrete – often with nicely landscaped decorative trees and vegetation – but there’s no place to run barefoot through the grass and toss around a Frisbee (that’s another thing I just realized: Frisbees don’t exist here!) The only grass in the entire city of São Carlos is on the soccer fields, and it’s not nice grass, it’s chewed-up grass with dirt and rocks. And if I want to hike or trail-run, I have to go outside the city entirely.

The wealth of American TV channels. My house in São Carlos gets exactly seven channels. If you order paid TV, you get maybe 15 more… but in total, there just aren’t that many networks. So when “there’s nothing on TV,” there’s REALLY nothing on TV.

I miss good American movies. The movies that pass on Brazilian television tend to be either cheesy 80s flicks that I’ve never heard of (for good reason, because they’re very forgettable films) or plotless, testosterone-powered, blow-‘em-up action movies. Once in a while something good comes on – Cast Away aired back in February, and Meet the Parentswas on last week – but in general, if you want to see anything worthwhile, you have to go rent it. Also, there are few good Brazilian movies.

Finely adjustable shower temperatures. Brazil’s showers reflect its typical status (in my opinion) between third-world and first-world country. No, one doesn’t have to bathe in a river or take showers out of a bucket. But neither can one fine-tune the temperature of the water. Brazilian showers have exactly three settings: cold, warm, and hot. Unfortunately my shower has some sort of problem, so the settings are actually more like “unbearably icy, hot, and literally boiling.”

The way “things” in general are just easier in the U.S. Part of it is simply the comfort one feels from being in one’s home country, where one is familiar with the way everything is done and has no language difficulties. The other part of it is the fact that Brazil’s bureaucracy is notorious for being terrible. In the U.S., even though DMVs have a reputation for being disorganized and crowded, they’re actually pretty organized and efficient. But here – well, to give an example: it’s a STRICT requirement of the law for foreigners living here to register for an ID card at the local Federal Police within 30 days of arrival in the country. You have to bring various documents, get fingerprinted, and remember to wear decent clothes because they won’t let you into the building in shorts and flip-flops. I went through all this rigmarole, and they told me they’d send me my ID card in 3 weeks. After four weeks, I called them and they claimed the processing time was 6 weeks. Well, now it’s been six and a half months, and I’m still awaiting the stupid card. The Fulbright commission told me not to hold my breath, since previous grantees have not received the ID card until after they’ve finished their grant and left the country!

The security of good medical care. The hospitals in the U.S. are among the best in the world, and one can feel confident one’s going to get good treatment. Brazil has some top-of-the-line hospitals as well, but also some really bad ones. There’s always that nagging knowledge in the back of my mind that I’m in a less-developed country with infamously bad bureaucracy, so the probability of getting a less efficient treatment or the wrong shot is higher. This worry is substantially less in São Carlos (one of the country’s richer and better-equipped cities) but the northeast of the country (including Salvador) is substantially poorer and less developed. Thankfully I haven’t had to seek medical care in Brazil; let’s hope I never have to!

Going back to the culinary aspect: I also miss seafood (we get extremely little seafood in the interior), good chocolate (it exists, but is costly. Once I had a yen for M&Ms, but M&Ms – imported – are expensive, so I bought a Brazilian brand. Mistake. The chocolate was about as flavorful as the candy shell, which, if you’ve ever sucked the shell off of an M&M, you know tastes like dye and plasticizer or something), good cheese (ditto – anything fancier than mozzarella will cost you a pretty penny), and milk that I can drink plain… okay, I know I covered the milk last time, but it’s worth mentioning again because it’s REALLY GROSS. I’ve noticed that even the Brazilians avoid drinking it plain: everyone in my household mixes in powdered chocolate to disguise the taste! Also good ethnic food: I love Brazilian food, but every once in a while I get a yen for Chinese or Italian or something different. There are a couple ethnic restaurants in São Carlos, but they’re few, far between, and expensive.

Shopping without being bothered. I think I’ve covered this before too. I’m a very “hands-off” shopper, and I also like to browse without buying anything. But most every Brazilian store has tons of salespeople who all work on commission, so as soon as you enter, one will latch onto you, follow you around the store, and act as your personal shopper. It’s very nice if you’re looking for help or a second opinion on whether or not you look good in a certain dress, but it’s annoying if you just want to be left alone. Such as when you’re shopping in the men’s section for a pair of pants because none of the women’s jeans fit you…

…and that brings me to another issue: in general, there is a much clearer stylistic separation between clothes/accessories for women and for men in Brazil; that is, the women’s clothes are distinctly feminine and the men’s clothes are distinctly masculine, with very little crossover and virtually no unisex items. It’s nearly impossible, for example, to find a simple loose cotton t-shirt (camiseta) for women. Women wear blusas (“blouses,” that is, nice shirts) or regatas (tank tops); camisetas are the exclusive property of the men’s section. One particular store reminded me of the newborn baby ward of a hospital: the left side was devoted to women’s clothes (all hung on pink hangers) and the right was men’s clothes (all on blue hangers). I felt a bit, well, self-conscious venturing into the blue-hangar section in search of a decently-fitting pair of capris, especially with the salesperson hovering over my shoulder.

The legal/ethical/judicial system in the U.S. Granted it has its faults, but the amount of corruption in the Brazilian government, as well as the way it’s handled, is ridiculous. Governors diverting public monies in order to finance renovations on their mansions while half their city’s population goes without electricity… senators buying votes and using connections to get favors through illegal channels… public officials conducting fishy behind-the-scenes business and lying about it… every politician gives lip service to being ethical and “anti-corruption,” but it seems that many have a hand in something shady. What’s worse is that the guilty parties often get off the hook. Last year, a huge scandal broke wide open; all sorts of illegal financial transactions, money laundering, bribes, etc. were proved to have occurred, yet their authors – all high-ranking members of the government – are getting absolved one by one, “as though there existed crime without criminals,” as one critic put it in an article.

The ability to flush TP. The advantage of this is that the toilet never clogs because of excess paper, but the disadvantage is that you have to take out the garbage from the bathroom pretty frequently. It’s not a necessity; that is, it doesn’t bother me to live without it, but it sure is a nice luxury to have.

This is a little thing, but it drives me crazy: in Brazil, the roles of decimal points and commas are switched. So a thousand is written 1.000, and three reais and fifty centavos is written 3,50. The editor in me always wants to correct it, because it looks like a typo to me.